Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Ox, Ass, and the Master's Crib

The birth of Jesus Christ has been a favorite theme of Christian artists throughout history. And no wonder; the birth of the incarnate Word of God was the beginning of God's ultimate work of salvation. It was the beginning of the long journey that would end on Golgotha.

Christian artistic tradition has developed a standard manner of depicting Christ's birth in art, based on the accounts of the Gospels. The details may vary, but we recognize the different elements - a manger, the star, shepherds, angels, and of course, Mary and Joseph. In this post, I would like to focus on one of the more humble and overlooked elements of traditional nativity art: the animals.

In modern nativity scenes, we usually see a lot of sheep associated with the shepherds - camels show up closer to Epiphany to signify the journey of the Magi. But in traditional depictions, the ox and the ass are the default animals that always show up. You may not have noticed this - we don't often pay attention to the animals - but it is so common that constitutes its own particular design element. Consider the following examples, taken from the East and West:

The last image is particularly striking; taken from the Fresco of the Nativity At the Church of the Holy Cross in Palermo, Italy, this image omits St. Joseph but takes care to include the ox and the ass!

This is very interesting given that neither the Gospel of Luke nor Matthew mentions the presence of animals at the Nativity, although they both mention St. Joseph.

Of course, the fact that no animals are mentioned does not mean they were not present;  St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate renders Luke 2:7 as: "et reclinavit eum in praesepio," which the Douay-Rheims version renders as Mary "laid him in a manger." The Greek text for St. Jerome's praesepio is phatnei, which is the Greek word for a manger, a feeding-trough for animals. It is certainly no stretch to assume animals were present.

However, the presence of the ox and the ass in particular are not explained by the datum of the New Testament, but by the prophecies of the Old. In the book of the prophet Isaiah, we read the following, in which God laments the infidelity of Israel:

"Hear, O ye heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord hath spoken. I have brought up children, and exalted them: but they have despised me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood" (Is. 1:2-3).

 The immediate context of this prophecy is the rebellion of Israel. God notes to the prophet that even a dumb animal knows who its master is. Anyone who has ever had livestock knows this - if you go out to the sheep with a bucket of grain,  the sheep will come right to your hand. They recognize their owner and come to him for their necessities. God notes this to Isaiah as a form of irony; a dumb animal intuitively recognizes its master and comes to him for his needs, but the very people God has called for His own are unable to recognize Him and refuse to come to Him!

Thus, when the ox and the ass are depicted at the manger of Christ, it is an allusion to Isaiah 1. The people of Israel did not recognize the Messiah when He came to them, but the ox and the ass are depicted reverencing Jesus as their Master. The fidelity of these simple animals to the Incarnate Word is contrasted to the infidelity of Israel, which the ox and the ass foreshadow. "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood."
It is true that no animals are mentioned in the infancy narratives. But the ox and the ass in depictions of the Nativity were never meant to infer the historical presence of these creatures at the birth of Jesus. Rather, they are iconographic symbols - rooted in the Old Testament prophets - meant to tell us something about the divine identity of Christ and call us to humble submission to Him.

Merry Christmas

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Identity-Based Outreach Ministries Blur the Lines Between Overcoming Sin and Celebrating It

I want you to take a good, hard look at this advertisement for a Jesuit-sponsored retreat in - where else - California:

I have not wasted my time on this, but if I were to contact the organizers and object to this event, I am fairly certain they would respond very charitably with some line about reaching out to the margins, "the Church is a field hospital", Jesus ate with sinners, I have not come to call the just, go to the peripheries, reach out to the lost, and so on and so on and so on.

And this response would be very frustrating because, all those things are true - I would not be able to object to any of those statements individually. But I would still know that this event is very, very wrong.

Over the years I have gone round and round with people who argue in favor of a kind of "identity-based outreach ministries" for persons with same sex attraction. I have consistently argued that this is a bad idea, because it inevitably leads to a situation where a group of people are categorized according to their sins and disorders. And there is a fine line between going out to sinners and affirming sinners. There ought not to be a fine line; it is actually a very easy distinction to make - but our stupid generation makes it a fine line. 

I vehemently disagree with identifying groups of people by their sins - and this is not just true for sexual sins. I have multiple people in my family who have struggled with alcoholism, but I do not think of them as the alcoholic members I my family; they are regular, fallen humans struggling with a particular vice. I think of them as family, my family where everyone has their own problems, just like any other humans.

I've known people who do drugs; I don't define them as "the drug addicts" - they are sons and daughters of Adam whom my Lord died for, who are fighting - sometimes winning, sometimes losing - a war against a painful addiction. But these addictions, vices, and sins do not define who they are. Part of me feels like it would be an insult to the grace of God to allow them to be defined by their failures.

There is always a danger in making more of these sins than what they are, or turning people into little "communities" where one is identified and understood in terms of their vices. That's certainly not to say there is no place in the Church for ministries geared towards people with particular challenges - support groups for divorced, for substance abuse - I know of one young men's group that is organized to provide mutual support for its members to stop masturbation. This is all fine and well. But nobody speaks of the "Divorced community" or the "Masturbators Community", nor would we think of our friends by those identifiers. "Hey, it's Cheryl my divorced friend", or "Look, there's Joe the Masturbator!"

LGBT persons will respond, "Exactly. And I do not want to be identified as Michael the Homosexual or Julie the Lesbian." I agree 100%. But if that is the case, let's stop with this "LGBT community" nonsense. There is no LGBT community just like there is no masturbators community. There are just people struggling with various problems. If LGBT people do not want to be identified by their sexual activities, then stop perpetuating that identity by insisting on the "LGBT community."

I think when the Church starts adopting the identity based assumptions of the secular world, we risk shifting from the traditional Christian view of helping sinners overcome their sins to a more modern sociological view of "celebrating" the "gifts" that each distinct "community" brings. This is very dangerous - not because, say LGBT people don't have gifts, but none of the gifts they have are because they are LGBT. An LGBT person might be intelligent, have a great singing voice, be good with accounting, or whatever, but none of those gifts are grounded in their sexual disorders. 

One might object that a sinner can bring a particular insight as a result of struggling with their sin. Perhaps. But if I am a recovering alcoholic, I certainly may be able to speak more eloquently to the struggles of other alcoholics, but this gift of insight comes not from my alcoholism, but from my victory over it. It comes from the virtue developed in successfully overcoming a vice.

On the other hand, if I am not a recovering alcoholic - that is, if I am still down and out and drunk continually - then I have no business being in any ministry at all till I get my life together. Ergo, either one has a gift to share by virtue of overcoming their vice, or if they have not overcome it, they shouldn't be in any "ministry" - but in no case does a "gift" arise from possessing the vice itself.

No authentic "gift" to the Church can come directly from a person's sin or disorder. But if we insist on speaking of how these disorders can "enrich" the Church's experience, we end up with a kind of "affirmative action" approach to things. For example, what qualities do we look for in a lector? Well, he must be articulate, have a pleasant voice, be able to speak loudly and clearly, and read with the proper intonation and stress. If those qualities happen to be possessed by a man who incidentally is a struggling (chastely) with same sex attraction, then of course there is no problem with him serving as a lector. In this case, we want certain gifts and talents suitable to the office and the person who fills them happens to be struggling with homosexual attraction. His struggle is incidental; everyone struggles.

But suppose we took the approach that there was this LGBT "community" that we needed to reach out to in order to be more "inclusive." Now suppose we need a lector. Instead of looking for the right qualities suitable to the office (voice, projection, etc), we begin with the affirmative action mentality of "This is a great opportunity to showcase how inclusive we are. Let's recruit a gay man to fill this office", and all of the sudden his homosexual tendencies become not incidental, but essential to why he is chosen - because the parish wants to showcase its token homosexual to prove how inclusive they are. In such a case, how can anyone escape the conclusion that the man's same sex attraction is being celebrated, since this is the reason he was invited to lector?

Looking again at the retreat advertised above, do we get the impression that the LGBT persons will be helped to overcome their vices and live chastely? Or do we get the impression that the LGBT identity is being celebrated and mainstreamed?

In my opinion, identity-based ministries that create "communities" centered on a particular sin are counter-productive to helping people overcome that sin because they end up creating "communities" out of these persons where their "gifts" are celebrated, rather than their souls cleansed.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Is there a Catholic nationalism?

The media is rattling on about a "populist" or "nationalist" movement sweeping the western world. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are the movement's most notable victories; the defeat of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's referendum this Sunday is another. Whether we look to Viktor Orban's Hungary bucking the EU and building a border wall to deter refugee traffic, or the surge of Marie le Pen's National Front in the upcoming French elections, or the mainstreaming of the Fascist Golden Dawn in Greece, everywhere we look the media are seeing nationalist bogeymen.

I do not mean to lump all these disparate movements together; the bloc of U.S. voters who elected Donald Trump is very different from the environmentalist, E-Democratic Five Star Movement that took down Renzi in Italy; and the British voters who opted for Brexit have little in common with the Nazi-sympathizing Golden Dawn in Greece. Many of these folks aren't part of any "movenent"; they are just average people who are sick of getting screwed over by the globalist economy.

But all the hubbub about nationalism begs the question of whether there can be an authentic Catholic nationalism in the modern world? Many of my Catholic acquintances on the Right of the political spectrum see these nationalism movements as manifestations of a crude statism, patently opposed to the subsidiarist model proposed by Catholic tradition; my Catholic acquiatances on the Left (mostly Canadians and Simcha fans) are simply mortified by the alleged "xenophobia" of nationalism, which for them, means essentially taking a harder line on immigration than that proposed by the USCCB. On both sides of the spectrum, Catholics seem uncomfortable with a nationalist political platform.

This is not surprising, as "nationalism" is an extremely broad term. Depending on how one takes it, it can be either something perfectly in line with Catholic political thought, or totally repugnant to it. Thsi is because "nationalism" is a term that is often used as a point of reference to compare it to other ideologies; it is something that is necessarily opposed to some other -ism, and as such tends to take on meaning relative to whatever it is contrasted to.

In the 19th century, nationalism was opposed to the last vestigates of provincialism-feudalism that characterized the waning days of Christendom. The nation-state was unknown for most of Christendom; men thought of themselves not in terms of what national group they belonged to, nor what language they spoke, but to whom they owed fealty to. Political bonds were personal, not national. Thus Christendom was always a polygot concept, with many ethnic and language groups living together under multiple jurisdictions that were primarily local or regional, bound loosely together not by any national identity, but by personal loyalty to a particular family dynasty - but nevertheless all united in their shared Catholicity under the government of God.

19th century nationalism was in intentional antagonism towards this system. In place of dynastic loyalty is substituted national identity. It elevated the state over the Church, prefering the nation-state to be the ultimate expression of culture. It's guiding principle was the rather arbitrary assertion that   

people of a single language group should constitute their own political entity. France for the French, Germany for the Germans, and so on. The nation was the expression of a certain "folk" or unique culture. Localism and regionalism had to be suppressed in favor of centralized bureaucratic management. Tradition had to be dismantled and replaced with a more scientific, positivist approach to government. And the Church, to the degree it stood in the way of the centralization of the nation-state, had to be opposed. 

In the this sense, I do not think a Catholic can be a nationalist. That sort of nationalism was the kind of ideology that ushered in the destruction of the medieval synthesis. It was the nationalism of Bismarck; a kind of political reaction against the Catholicity of the Christian religion. By emphasizing ethnic and linguistic considerations as essential to the idea of the state, that kind of nationalism actually undermines the Catholicity of Christendom, which is composed of men of "every tribe and tongue and nation" (Rev. 7:9). 

Now, this was nationalism understood in contradistinction to the older, regional-localist systems traditionally associated with Christendom. But that is not necessarily the only way we could interpret nationalism. To put it in the tired old contemporary paradigm, 19th century nationalism was a movement for "big government" and statism, which is hardly what most Brexit voters or Trump supporters wanted. Indeed, the Brexit was a repudiation of the bloated, centralized bureaucracy in Brussels; the Trump bloc was pushing back against the outrageous government overreach that has characterized the Obama years. Clearly, the nationalism of 2016 is much different from the nationalism of 1848.

Broadly speaking, the nationalism we are seeing surge across the west could be defined as a desire for the independence of one's country - political, economic, and military independence. It would include an emphasis on promotion of its interests as opposed to those of other nations, and would approach policy issues on whether they value the interests of the nation-state over and above other nations. But most importantly, it is a reaction against globalism

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the origins of globalism and the agenda of the globalists, but by understanding contemporary nationalism as a reaction against globalism, we can begin to construct a spectrum to place nationalism on. The subsidiarist-regionalist structure of Christendom is preferable to the modern nation-state, but the modern nation-state is much more preferable to globalism. And what nationalism is exactly depends on what it is being opposed to.

Understood as a reaction to globalism, I think there is room for an authentic Catholic nationalism. If patriotism is a love of the fatherland, I think nationalism is the affection for the fatherland translated into a positive, political will to see it protected, strengthened, and extolled. Of course, I am talking about a nationalism that is in accord with right reason and the Catholic tradition (preserving it from a blind jingoism). If nationalism is understood in terms of a rejection of the principles of globalism and pluralism, it certainly can be a very Catholic impulse.

It could be asked, "If one wants to reject globalism, why not adopt subsidiarism instead? Why opt for nationalism?" I honestly do not think nationalism and subsidiarism are opposed to one another. I think one can have an authentic Catholic nationalism that is subsidiarist. But did I not above argue that 19th century nationalism was antagonistic towards the subsidiarist systems of Christendom?

Yes, I did, but I also argued that nationalism has many forms, and that it is often defined by what it is opposing, and that there is no necessary reason why nationalism must include, for example, a mono-lingual society or a bloated, centralized bureaucracy Nationalism has to do with how a nation fends for its own interests relative to other nations; subsidiarism has to do with how a nation organizes itself. As I see it, I don't get why a nation cannot have a fundamentally nationalist foreign policy but a subsidiarist domestic policy. This seems like common sense to me; the virtues, industry, and wealth generated by a robust regional economy could be put into a strong, nationalist foreign policy.

In the contemporary situation where the world's elites are enamored with a globalist vision, I will absolutely take a nationalist foreign policy any day over a globalist one, either of the neo-con or liberal variety. And I don't think such a foreign policy need necessarily conflict with subsidiarity at home, or a Catholic political ethos.